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Accidental hero

October 2004

In his professional employment, Julian Burnside QC focuses on commercial litigation, but this quietly spoken Monash alumnus and Melbourne silk donates large amounts of his time and energy to fighting for the rights of asylum seekers. Robyn Anns reports.

The people's champion: Julian Burnside QC fights passionately for the rights of refugees.
Photo: Delwyn Hewitt

Someone like Julian Burnside, who battles tirelessly for the rights of asylum seekers, might be expected to have a long and passionate history of fighting for similar causes.

But the Melbourne QC and Monash alumnus seems almost surprised to find himself in the role of champion of Australia's detainees.

"At the time of the Tampa refugees overboard saga in 2001, I didn't know anything about asylum seekers or refugees," he says. "I thought they had committed an offence by coming here without papers and that they should be duly locked up. I didn't think about it."

The Melbourne silk's court work has involved many high-profile, colourful clients and cases. He defended Alan Bond, interrogated both John Laws and Alan Jones as counsel assisting the Australian Broadcasting Authority's 'cash-for-comment' inquiry, helped the Maritime Union of Australia defeat Patrick Stevedores in the High Court and took on class actions against Esso following the gas explosion at Longford.

But it was not until he was asked by Melbourne barrister Mr John Manetta, who was appearing for Liberty Victoria in the Tampa case, to act for the asylum seekers as part of his regular pro bono work for disadvantaged clients, that the plight of the refugees came onto his radar.

Now he fights passionately for their cause, but he refutes the suggestion that he is unusually compassionate - it's just that he has been exposed to the facts about asylum seekers through his work on the Tampa case.

"Once you know those facts, you can't ignore them," he says. "As soon as I looked at the Tampa case, it was blindingly obvious these people were being treated in a way no-one should be treated."

After completing a Bachelor of Economics and a Bachelor of Laws at Monash University, Mr Burnside became a barrister in 1976 and took silk in 1989. He says Monash taught him that practising lawyers should always question the laws they uphold.

"The very strong message was that we should not simply accept the law uncritically," he says. "I am confident that my questioning of the content of Australia's federal laws about asylum seekers goes back to my university days.

"During my time at Monash, there was a very strong sentiment that law was an integral part of society, that its function was to serve society and that we should never lose sight of what is going on in society.

"Professor David Derham (Monash Law dean from 1964 until 1968) and Professor Louis Waller (Monash Law dean from 1969 to 1970, now emeritus professor) drove home to us repeatedly that the law is an integral part of what makes society work.

"It's very easy for lawyers to lose their bearings and come to believe they are practising an intellectual discipline that is not connected to the real world." Mr Burnside works at least 80 hours a week including a great deal of pro bono work, 90 per cent of which concerns refugees.

"The refugee work now accounts for about 35 per cent of my waking, as opposed to my working, life," he says with a sigh.

He says the people in immigration detention centres are wrongly characterised as 'illegals'. He quotes Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which guarantees to every human being the right to seek asylum in any territory they can reach. The federal Migration Act does not make it an offence to arrive in Australia without papers or prior permission.

"They have a right under international law to claim asylum from persecution. That is what they are doing. They have committed no crime - they are innocent. Yet they are locked up indefinitely. People are at breaking point because they feel the hopelessness of it all."

For more information, visit the Monash University prominent alumni website or the Liberty Victoria Council for Civil Liberties.